Stop and take a minute to daydream with me. Think about going into your boss’s office to find the HR manager, your immediate supervisor, your “big boss,” someone you don’t know, and your best friend. You’re told to sit down and relax—we’re going to figure out how much money you will make next year. Immediately, the HR manager busts out this huge document and your boss starts to read from the first page. Your immediate supervisor (who you thought you had a great relationship with) is standing in the corner trying to look strong, but still not able to make eye-contact with you. The text that your boss is reading is a laundry list of things that make you a bad employee—everything from that time you were 6 minutes late to the time you missed a deadline 6 months ago. You look at your best friend to see that his face is growing redder by the second. Soon, he’ll look like Pat Quinn after 3 hours in an Irish pub. Ok, maybe this isn’t so much a daydream as it is a nightmare.
You and your friend sit and listen for 90 minutes while the 3 people on the other side of the desk tear your entire tenure down to the ground. By the end of their diatribe, you feel about 2 inches tall and wonder why you even bother coming into work everyday. At this point, your friend launches into a 90 minute response. He explains that the deadline you missed was because it was a 2-year project that you managed to finish in 7 months. He explains that while you were late that one time, you’ve only been late once in 3 years. He has your back—he explains all of the things that make you a great employee and why they’re lucky that they have you. He makes you feel a little better, but you still have a hard time getting all of that negative stuff out of your head.
When your friend finally runs out of breath, everyone in the room shakes hands and exits the room. Your bosses will say something along the lines of, “Hey, no hard feelings… it’s just business.” Meanwhile, you’re just sitting there wondering what the hell just happened. That stranger in the room will get back with you within 48 hours and let you know whether your friend was closer to the truth or the bosses who have been tearing you down. And you’ll be paid accordingly. But remember—it’s OK because it’s just business.
There’s a reason that most of these contract disputes that have an arbitration hearing date never make it to said hearing. No one wants to go through that process and no one is ever really the same afterwards.
Arbitration sucks. Just think about your boss taking you into a room and telling you all of the reasons why you sucked and why you should not make as much money as you think you should. I’m not sure exactly which emotions would come to the forefront, but I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience that I’d want to share with my friends and family. Does this sound like something you’d want to put yourself through?
“Talking to Anton this morning, we both agreed that if we have to go through the process, we have to go through it… I made sure he knew this was part of the business and that whatever was going to be said in that room, we still like him as a player. But the danger in going through it is, it gets very personal.” –Scott Howson (via Puck-Rakers)
No thank you.
So what happens after the fact? What happens if the two sides are unable to reach an agreement before the hearing is set to begin? Well, it usually means that the player’s days with their current team are numbered. Of the 17 hearings that were scheduled last year, only 4 of them actually went to the arbitrator. So how did those work out? All 4 of those players have played somewhere else in the last year. Daniel Winnik and Milan Jurcina were both traded within 12 months of their arbitration decision. Both Jiri Hudler and Nik Zherdev decided to take their talents to the KHL for a year before heading back to the NHL for the 2010-11 season. That’s it, that’s the list. 4 players and not one of them just continued to play as a normal member of the team.
Just like last year, we’ve seen a ration of these disputes get done at the very last minute. Both sides know what is behind the arbitrator’s door, and to be honest—neither side wants that. The team is afraid that the arbitrator will award the player a contract that they don’t feel is fair or, worse yet, a contract they can not afford under the budget. The player (and their agent) doesn’t want to go into a hearing because they don’t want to hear all of the negative qualities they bring to the table and they too are afraid of an independent arbitrator’s ruling. The minute the two sides walk into that hearing, they give up control of the situation. Interestingly enough, neither agents nor NHL management types like to give up control.
This year, 31 players filed for arbitration. While the hearings are scheduled to continue through August 4th, we have already reached resolutions in 25 of the disputes. In 21 of the 25 cases, the team and player were able to resolve the disagreement before going to an arbitrator. Jannik Hansen was awarded an $850,000 contract which the Vancouver Canucks accepted. The Atlanta Thrashers ran away from Clarke MacArthur’s $2.4 million arbitration award. We’re still waiting to see what comes of Blake Wheeler’s and Tim Kennedy’s hearings, but those are the only players who have made it into the hearings, thus far. But with Antti Niemi (even if his is different) and James Wisniewski on deck, there’s a good chance that a few more arbitrators will be put to use.
There’s a reason that guys like Mason Raymond, Tomas Fleischmann, and Matt Moulson are able to sign contracts just minutes before their hearings are set to start. There’s nothing like the motivation of a deadline to inspire both sides to pull it together and get something done. Now if we could just artificially create this kind of desperation a little earlier in the process, maybe we’d never get to this point!
The bottom line is nobody wants to go to a 3rd party. Agents don’t want their clients to go through the process, and organizations don’t want to risk a huge reward that could force them to walk away from one of their young players. And players? Would you want hear all the negatives from your employer? Probably not.
But at least it would make for good television…